The Secret of Mitt Romney’s Success

Smile at the conservatives. Then ignore them.

Romney has been sounding notes of bipartisanship since the first presidential debate

Photograph by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

If Mitt Romney wins the election, it will be because he ignored conservatives. After he won the primaries, many of the most prominent voices in the movement plead with him to run loud and proud as a conservative and to campaign overtly on conservative ideas. He never did that, and he’s ending the campaign on a moderate note, a move his strategists believe will capture the disaffected Obama voters he needs to win the election.

The strategy appears to render a verdict on a long-standing debate in conservative circles over whether candidates can campaign on conservative ideas like privatizing Social Security, offering Medicare vouchers, or drastically shrinking the social safety net. It also gives us some limited insight into the inner heart of Mitt Romney and how he might govern. At least tactically, he’s acted pragmatically, not ideologically.

Starting in the spring and spilling over into the summer, Romney got a regular dose of advice from the most prominent public conservatives: Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. They all counseled him that he couldn’t win on a platform of not being Barack Obama. He had to unfurl the conservative banner, and proclaim these bold ideas from the rooftops. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall vote, it seemed to ratify the idea that a person could govern as an unabashed conservative. Walker said that the one lesson from the recall was that he should have been more open about his plans. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels made a pragmatic rather than political case. Unless Romney explained his conservative solutions as a candidate, he’d never have a mandate for governing. 

Romney resisted these appeals for weeks—and then he picked Paul Ryan. For a moment, it suggested that he’d been quietly listening to the conservative commentators all along. Ryan was a twofer. He had put conservative principles in practice and he was a leading advocate of the loud and proud approach. He had been a member of the Romney advice chorus before he was picked. In 2004, when President George Bush pushed for private Social Security accounts, many Republicans thought the idea was toxic. Ryan, however, campaigned on it, arguing when he won that if you bravely backed the idea voters would reward you.  

But picking Paul Ryan was not the same as running on Paul Ryan’s programs. The Romney campaign boasted that selecting Ryan meant that Romney was making tough decisions and backing conservative solutions, but there was very little evidence that Romney and his campaign were actually going to campaign on those solutions. Medicare is a good example. Romney distanced himself from the details of the Ryan plan—absolving himself of the tricky math questions by arguing that private-sector competition would solve the problem of maintaining quality care while reducing cost. But then he never really ran on the idea itself. Giving a speech in which you savage the president for cutting Medicare is not the same as running on your ideas for the program. 

In fact, Paul Ryan seems more changed by running with Mitt than the other way around. How transformed is Ryan? (Politico called him Mini-Mitt) He recently gave a speech on income inequality. That’s a far distance from running on conservative principles. This isn’t to say that conservatives are not concerned about income inequality—Ryan talked about it before he was a national candidate—but income inequality is not an issue conservatives consider in their wheelhouse. It is often the case that conservatives think that talk of income inequality is an attempt to pit one class against the other. Indeed, Mitt Romney thought this; he once said that talk of income inequality should be confined to “quiet rooms,” and not the campaign trail. When Democrats raised the issue of distribution of wealth and inequality, he claimed they were practicing the “politics of envy.”

Wisconsin Gov. Walker rendered the final verdict on the watering down of Paul Ryan. “I was enthused when Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan because I thought that was a signal that this guy was getting serious, he was getting bold,” Walker told a local radio host. “I just haven’t seen that kind of passion I know that Paul has transferred over to our nominee.” Walker believed that Romney was in synch ideologically with Ryan, but that he wasn’t being vocal enough about it. “They need to have more of him rub off on Mitt, because I think Mitt thinks that way but he’s gotta be able to articulate that,” he said.

He wasn’t the only one who noticed. The Weekly Standard reporter Stephen Hayes said the Romney campaign has reverted to the pre-Ryan moment. Bill Kristol also called for more brio. But now no one is making too big a fuss because Romney’s moderate Massachusetts strategy has improved Romney’s standing. It’s conventional Republican wisdom that Romney succeeded in the first debate because voters—particularly married women voters—found him to be a likeable, moderate fellow. The campaign has been running with this ever since. Previously Romney had been downplaying his conservative positions. Now he is either running away, or, in some cases—like his position on legislation to allow companies to deny employees contraception coverage—actively changing them to a more moderate posture. (If the election were held on New Year’s Day, he might come out for Obamacare.)

This leads to some head spinning conversations with Romney strategists and surrogates. More than once they have boasted that what people are now seeing is the true Romney. They remind you that their candidate had to withstand all of those accusations that he was “Moderate Mitt” during the primary season. That’s proof that he’s always been the far more reasonable, centered candidate. What makes you reach for the Dramamine is that when Romney was being called “Moderate Mitt” he and his campaign were steadfastly rebutting the label. It was about this time that Romney started calling himself “severely conservative.”

In the end, all of this shape-shifting leads to confusion about what Mitt Romney will govern. Will it be the fellow who was trying to court conservatives in the primaries or the one who is appealing to moderates now? Or, will he be pragmatic, calculating his political positions based on the composition of the Congress and the forces in the larger electorate he’ll still have to appeal to once he’s in office?

Romney has been sounding notes of bipartisanship since the first presidential debate on Oct. 3. The election is all about coming together with Democrats, he says. “I’ve got to make sure and reach across the aisle,” Romney said at a recent campaign stop. “I gotta find, I know there are good Democrats who love America just like we do. I’m going to reach across the aisle to them and work together, put the interests of the people ahead of the politicians. We’ve gotta do this. It’s too critical a time. We can’t change course unless we change the way Washington is working.” It’s another shift in tone and it appears to be working—at least with many of the 200 undecided voters I’ve been corresponding with. It doesn’t seem to be costing Gov. Romney support with conservatives who are banking he’ll return to the fold when he’s in office.

Romney’s new spirit of bipartisanship actually seems in keeping with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christies, our most recent example of a big name Republican saying good things about the other side. Christie has been sharing the stage and praising President Obama for his fast response to Hurricane Sandy. It is completely in keeping with Christie’s reputation for calling it as he sees it—even if it might upset Republicans. That’s what works for Christie, as he recently told Esquire:

I caught a guy in high school who went on to play pro ball. His father was this quiet retired Marine drill sergeant. This kid threw a ninety-four-, ninety-five-mile-an-hour fastball. But he also had a good curveball. Freshman year one game, we made a guy look silly on two curveballs in a row — strike one, strike two. I called a third curveball. The kid hit it about 350 feet. That night I went to my friend’s house for dinner. And his father said to me in his quiet way, “Chris, let me ask you something. That third curveball: I couldn’t see from where I was standing. Did you call it or did Scott shake you off to the curveball?” And I said, “No, I called it.” And he put his fork down on his plate — I can close my eyes and still see this guy doing this — and he said to me, “Don’t ever do that again.”

If you’re gonna get beat, get beat on your best pitch.

Mitt Romney has always seemed awkward playing the severe conservative. It’s not his best stuff. He might lose this thing—the polls in the battleground states aren’t looking good—but since Oct. 3 he’s been going with his best pitch. He’s no longer taking advice from the Scott Walkers of the world. He is listening to the more pragmatic Chris Christies. If Romney loses, those will be the battle lines for the next GOP contest.

Watch the main event of Political Kombat, Romney vs. Obama: